Saturday, July 12, 2003

The Lady in the Tower: Anne Boleyn’s Story

English author Jean Plaidy (the pen name for Eleanor Hibbert; also known as Victoria Holt) wrote many historical fiction novels during the latter half of the twentieth century. Many of her books are currently being re-published, for another generation to enjoy. One such novel is Plaidy’s The Lady in the Tower, of the "Queens of England" series.

The Lady in the Tower is Anne Boleyn’s story, told in first-person as she sits in the London Tower awaiting her execution in 1536. Having come to this tragic end, she recounts her life story, considering along the way her mistakes and what she could have done differently.

With its touching, personal style, The Lady in the Tower portrays life in the royal courts of Britain and France during the early 16th century, as seen by young Anne Boleyn. We learn of her early years in the French court, then her arrival in the English court and romance with Henry Percy. But alas, King Henry VIII intervened to prevent that marriage, and soon revealed to Anne his own interest in her.

This real story – one of those "stranger than fiction" tales that grabs our attention and fascinates so many, because it is true – is revealed with great accuracy, faithful to the actual political events as well as to Anne’s character. All of the characters are historical figures: her brother George and his wicked wife; wayward sister Mary, who was Henry’s mistress for several years and comes to a sad ending; also Thomas Wyatt, Henry Percy, Cardinal Wolsey, King Henry, Queen Katharine, and so many others of this era. The backdrop of the Reformation is ever-present, and we learn of Anne’s interest in Luther’s ideas. From this background also springs forth Cromwell’s suggestion to King Henry (a devout Catholic) to break from the Catholic Church and form a new Church of England.

The sometimes-sympathetic Anne has her good qualities as well as her faults. On the one hand, Anne prized some moral values: keeping her body only for her husband and no other. Yet she had no such qualms if that meant breaking up an existing marriage, for the King to divorce his first wife to marry her. Ambition, as Anne herself relates, came into her heart to replace love; she could not have Henry Percy, whom she loved. Her ambitious father, Thomas Boleyn, would have her marry some man of higher standing -- so why not the King himself? Anne’s personality comes through clearly, again accurate to the historical record: one who liked fashion and designed her own garments; enjoyed being in the spotlight at court; and was often flirtatious, bold, and flippant.

The reader can sympathize with the young woman who makes many foolish mistakes – as so many young people do – and realize the incredible temptations and pressure she faced. Yet we also – as Anne herself now, too late – see her lack of wisdom and judgement, her pride and arrogance, that which would lead to her own judgement and downfall.

The Lady in the Tower is an interesting, if somewhat sad and depressing, historical fiction novel. Though we all know the ending, the telling is made more interesting through Anne’s hindsight point of view, a storyteller half in the past, now looking back with regrets and insights (such as of Henry’s character), even the subtle hints that would foretell later misfortunes. This book is a good sampling of Jean Plaidy’s work, one of her many historical novels set in Europe’s past.

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